Q&A with Jenna Lansing
Tell us about yourself – what is your background in and how did you end up in your current position?
My background is all farming and agriculture. I grew up on a farm in Iowa: my parents feed cattle and row crop. While growing up, I helped my family with the physical labor side of it, but also got to witness the dinner table conversations about the business: I got to see the 100 different hats that a farmer wears. Growing up in that environment, an entrepreneurial and hard-work-pays-off mindset was instilled in me. To some degree, farmers are betting on Mother Nature, right? You have to be pretty resilient to pick yourself up and keep going, even if things are not going your way. Because there's a lot of things that control your livelihood that are not in your control.
I went to Iowa State to study agricultural business, and then moved into a role in fertilizer sales. Eventually, I found my way into animal health market research, which then led me to Aimpoint. It has been a very good fit for me: I’m naturally curious about the world around me, and have been around agriculture my entire life.
Tell us about Aimpoint Research and your program, the AgriFood WatchDesk.
Aimpoint is a global strategic intelligence firm specializing in agriculture and food. Our founder and several members of our team are former military intelligence officers who spent portions of their careers using strategic intelligence to protect national security. They understand the value of good intelligence in decision making. In addition to military backgrounds, we have teammates that have worked their entire lives in agriculture, and some who actively farm today. At the core of what we do, we believe food security is fundamental to national security, and that drives why we do what we do. We blend military intelligence techniques and market research capabilities to help our clients understand their current environment, predict where that environment is going and how to take action so they can be successful no matter how the environment changes.
Modeled off of military intelligence watch desks, Aimpoint’s Agri-Food WatchDesk monitors the entire agri-food value chain. We are looking for any disruptions or innovations that could impact the value chain. We take into account what happens before the farm – monitoring agricultural inputs, their methods of production and distribution, and capital and risk management. We then watch what happens on the farm, and then follow the products produced on the farm through manufacturing and distribution to the end consumer. We also keep a close eye on anything that could indirectly affect our food systems such as politics, global trade, geopolitics, sustainability, and even energy.
Why is ground-truthed data so important to the agriculture industry?
There's just so much noise nowadays for how connected the world is, and there needs to be a filtering mechanism to figure out what to be concerned about and the following impacts. This is really important for our clients, since we work primarily with business executives. Aimpoint gets to be the third party and strategic partner. We filter through the data, provide the best intel, and get them to the best decision for their business. With all the noise out there it’s difficult for any one individual to keep track of, but Aimpoint can keep that very broad view so people and their businesses don’t get blind-sided.
How has the agriculture industry met the challenges of the last three years?
I don't get the opportunity to look in the past as much as I do looking forward. Agriculture is probably one of the most resilient industries you could come across. I think there's been a ton of advancements in the industry, and just the innovation cycle alone has sped up within the last few years.
While navigating Covid, the agri-food industry had to get very creative at times, but just like every other industry, agriculture took away a lot of important messages. We've seen a lot of uptick in E-commerce and adoption of digital platforms across the value chain. The “just-in-time” delivery model that we all grew so accustomed doesn’t stand up quite as well as we predicted. When you’re trying to deliver quickly, efficiently, and consistently, it doesn't leave much room for being nimble and flexible.
How has the data revolution impacted agriculture and farmers?
The impact the data revolution can have on agriculture is huge. We have seen a lot of innovation in this space, with many offerings hitting the market, providing a lot of benefits. However, I think we're just starting to scratch the surface. There are still quite a few challenges that have to be overcome before we can unleash the entire power of data and tech on agriculture and food systems.
One very apparent challenge is interconnectivity: there is a lot of data being collected all over the farm and throughout the agri-food value chain; whether it is data collected from tractors or combines to in-field sensors monitoring soil and water conditions, or satellite imagery. The data output from each of these devices varies tremendously. It takes a lot of work to clean that data and aggregate it together. None of this data is built to communicate within the systems, let alone share something as simple as a file structure.
When new revenue opportunities arise for farmers, similar to what we’re seeing with carbon sequestration and trying to certify goods through the supply chain, the systems struggle to talk to one another because none of the data is standardized. Another challenge we have to overcome is data privacy, similar to what we’re seeing in other industries. It's the question of who owns the data, who's responsible for maintaining it, and the governance around data itself.
Those are two big things I think are really holding us back on what data actually can do, however, where the data could go is extremely exciting! We can create a system that has data flowing freely from farmers to consumers and back again. Farmers can better navigate obstacles, and deliver on changing consumer demands more quickly.
The tech industry has taken a big interest in agriculture: everything from IoT to plant-based meat. What are some trends that you’re excited about? Are there any that you are wary of?
One trend that is top of mind that I am excited about would be the food-as-medicine and personalized nutrition trend. Gene editing in crops to make them more drought resistant or altering yield or growth height are all fairly obvious applications. Currently, we’re seeing developments of crops that are healthier for the final consumer and not just more resilient to survive weather conditions. These crops are getting developed substantially faster, too. Once, 10-15 years for full crop development and approval was accepted as the industry standard, but now these crops are getting to consumers in 6-8 years. There are technologies in development that could achieve this in as little as 4 years. The fact that we’re shedding multiple years off of these processes is incredible.
Another one that is exciting is precision agriculture and what data will do to the industry. What precision ag means is efficiency: we will be able to manage the land and crops at a more precise level. For example, instead of managing at the field level, we will be able to manage that same field by breaking it up into a grid. This will lead to farmers being able to use less water, fertilizer and agrochemicals. Overall, precision will unlock a new level of production.
There isn’t anything that I am wary of, but I do feel that there are major challenges that have existed for years that remain unsolved. One can make a farm as efficient as possible, but you can’t change the fact that you’ll need boots on the ground – solving for labor is extremely difficult. Society has a notion of harvesting being a completely mindless and skilless process, but this isn’t true in the slightest. Knowing when produce is ready to be picked takes time to learn, and it requires speed to get the job done before the season ends. Additionally, tenderness is required to not damage any of the produce.
In livestock management, the story is the same – visual and thermal monitoring doesn’t tell a complete story. There are different instincts that humans have when it comes to the care of livestock. I think pork production is a prime example. When you think of the care and the delicacy that goes into the process of birth – that process is truly amazing – and so very hard to replicate in a machine.
Ultimately, there are some jobs like this that are highly unlikely or completely unable to be displaced by a machine. That being the case, the questions then become: How can you enable the human? How can you make things easier in certain processes and tasks that have to be carried out? Where can we get more creative and add a machine or a different tool that creates more efficiency? Automation will be a great solution but replicating the delicacy of the human hand and having machines durable enough to handle the conditions are challenges that are yet to be overcome. I believe there is still a lot of room for innovation still in the labor space.
What are the greatest opportunities for the agricultural industry in relation to the mounting pressures of climate change?
Agriculture is very well positioned to help with climate change. There are a few different angles, but as we find ourselves in a period of transition, carbon is what is most popular right now. Whether it's cutting greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration, or carbon abatement, by changing some of our inputs we tend to be less carbon intensive. One of the other big opportunities for agriculture is in renewable fuels. Whether it is ethanol from corn or renewable diesel from soybeans, the transportation industry can leverage these fuels as the whole industry transitions to cleaner energy. In my home state of Iowa, the majority of gas stations offer gasoline blends that contain anywhere from 15% to 85% ethanol.
The reality is that we’re not all going to wake up one morning with every car magically replaced by an electric vehicle, it will be a process and electricity might not be applicable in some scenarios. Some parts of our systems will be electric and some will be running on biofuels. For short hauls and urban uses where you’re not going very far, electric makes sense. In the long-haul trucking industry, airline industry and farm equipment industry, biofuels, like renewable diesel, make sense because of the need for power and distance.
What is your single biggest motivator when you come to work each day?
I have two. First is the team I work with every day. I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to lead this team, and they are some of the smartest people I've ever met. They're a ton of fun, and they work hard. Every person really challenges you to think and look at things from a variety of angles. I'm grateful we've created an environment where you are able to challenge each other, have debates, and engage in very deep conversations on things – ensuring we are getting to the best intelligence we can.
The second thing that I really enjoy is getting to learn something new every day. One day, we might be looking at the electric vehicles market, and the next day we could be learning about biotech. You never know what’s coming next since the food system is so big and touches so much of our world. When we get to follow or chase after some of these trends, we end up falling down some very interesting rabbit holes.